Twenty Sixth Approach to Het Steen: 1636.Time and Space (The Usual Stuff of Art)

Peter Paul Rubens: 'A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning', 1636. Oil on Oak. 131 x 229.cm. National Gallery, London

Friday Afternoon, National Gallery, London

Sitting in front of this painting, can we recognise a sense of freedom, a release from working to commission? This is, or so we are told in critiques of late Rubens’ landscapes, a painting made entirely for pleasure. It is certainly not one of Rubens’ machines, no muscular quantities of flesh and evident classical narrative.

“Man, why’s there so many dogs in all these paintings?”

“I don’t know, maybe the Brits liked dogs”

“Look there’s one with that man with the gun”

“And see in that one over there, the one with all the fat women, the dog under the tree, and there’s an ostrich!”

“Man, that’s not an ostrich”

“What’s it then?”

“I don’t know, but it’s not an ostrich”

“Maybe that dog will eat it”

“Maybe, then we won’t have to know what it’s called”

The panel is made from many odd sections (twenty apparently), some of the horizontal joins are increasingly obvious. Earlier explanations believed this unorthodoxy showed Rubens adding new parts to the painting as ideas occurred; a genuine development not an allotted task. Recent research (e.g. Christopher Brown: ‘Making and Meaning/ Rubens’ Landscapes’. National Gallery Publications. 1996)  thinks this unlikely. It would be difficult if not impossible to add, prime and work in sections of oil painting, the already worked paint would be disturbed at the very least. Adding sections of panel is not like, for example, Degas sticking on extra bits of paper to his drawings as he expanded an idea.

Edgar Degas: 'Woman Drying Herself', 1880's. pastel on several pieces of paper. 104 x 98 cm. National Gallery, London

The reason for all the small sections then? Rubens was paying for it himself, the artist went for the cheapest option, something knocked up from oddments in the panel makers shop: lots of bits.

But, to be honest, after looking for so long at this large painting in such a public place, I still think it is a public painting, made for this sort of reception. You could say that the strong brown washes (the Burnt Sienna like colour, probably Cassel Earth) over white lead underpaint in the foreground have the effect of lighting the trunk and fallen branches from underneath; like footlights on a stage.

Peter Paul Rubens: 'A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning', 1636. Oil on Oak. 131 x 229.cm. National Gallery, London. Detail: The Foreground

I’m sure this has more to do with paint ageing, than a deliberate attempt to reinforce the artificiality of the painted world, far too Post-Modernist. Nonetheless, the fact that one could hold such a notion about the work, emphasises that it was an image made for public consumption.

Was there any other type in this period?  Van der Capelle (looked at in the last post), is often described as a ‘Sunday Painter’ in that, as a wealthy man (the family firm made money in the dye trade: carmine) he did not need to sell his work. Unlike for example Rubens, and like for example, Cezanne supported by his father’s money.

The Ground Plane

Van der Capelle’s paintings look very similar, but I hope my digressions on the ground plane recently showed that something else going on, some wish to follow a line of enquiry. There is none of that same sense of personal investigation about Het Steen, personal display perhaps but not personal discovery. Rubens is not finding anything that he had not known before, unlike Cezanne or possibly van der Capelle.

Look at the ground plane in Het Steen, unlike the van Der Capelle,

Jan van de Cappelle: ‘A River Scene with a Large Ferry and Numerous Dutch Vessels at Anchor’, 1665. Oil on canvas. 122 x 154.5 cm. National Gallery, London.

Rubens ground plane is entirely and deliberately solid, and for a reason. This is land that Rubens would like to us to believe generations of Rubens have traversed; there is certainly an ancient hill fort aspect to our viewpoint. It is also land, Rubens would like us to believe, generations of Rubens will traverse after him; in fact it was sold not long after his death.

“Eurgh, my feet hurt”

“We should really report in”

“What time is the meet?”

“Now”

“Moving on then?”

Timelessness and Pictorial Space

Another question: How does an artist go about creating this sense of timelessness in a scene which, through the contemporary dress of the carter and companion and hunter, is clearly set in 1636?

Answer: the deep pictorial space and elevated viewing point help a great deal. Think of a different painting, Rubens: ‘Samson and Delilah’, which you can just see from the bench in front of Het Steen.

Peter Paul Rubens: 'Samson and Delilah', about 1609, Oil on Oak, 185 x 205 cm. National Gallery, London

It is made by the way, from six very carefully jointed and prepared oak panels, with the grain running perfectly parallel in all of them. Although Samson is a timeless story and the some of the clothes are vaguely timeless, the animal skin notwithstanding, it is set in a claustrophobic now. The long past and future are suitably indicated, but not really part of the show. The contemporary armour helps, but that ‘nowness’ is set, because there are no depths for the eye to travel to, therefore no indicated depths of time for us to wander about in.

The action in Het Steen is in the immediate fore and near mid-ground, the rest of the view though, is equally clearly painted, and clear for us to potter across. It is not though,  the mere scene setting landscape you can see on the flanking Judgements of Paris.

A young man pushes an older man (father?) in a rather splendid wheelchair (all wicker back and cane edged wheels) to position him centrally in front of the painting.

“A view of Het-Stern, whatever a hetstern is”

The older man points with his stick at the horizontal crack running between cart wheel and trunk. They wonder between them what could have caused this. The younger man points out the hunter, the older points to the fallen tree and says:

“I suppose it looked like those once” waving at the oak and birches in the mid ground.

“I suppose so”

The younger man wheels the chair away, he has Rebel Rock Radio embroidered on the back of his shirt, and big head phones around his neck.

This morning I saw some drawings by Robert Bevan (The Camden Town artist better known for his small painting of horses and horse markets) made during time spent in Pont-Aven.

Robert Bevan: 'Poplars by the Road, Brittany',early 1890's, charcoal on paper, 33 x 40 cm.

Heavily influenced by Gauguin, these drawings of trees had enormous energy and strength, not dissimilar now I come to look at them, to the lively forms of the trees the old man has been indicating with his stick. The different areas of sunlight and the curving masses of the painted leaves are full of movement and, well, youth really.

Peter Paul Rubens: 'A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning', 1636. Oil on Oak. 131 x 229.cm. National Gallery, London. Detail The Trees

On the other side of the bench, a young man is drawing in his sketchbook, not the usual insipid copying, but strong lines of figures, thick and black and energetic. So different for example to the art student I saw recently, laboriously copying the biro lines made by Boetti’s assistants, and getting them wrong.

Alighiero Boetti: 'Al Mondo Il Mondo', 1972-3. Biro on Paper, 159 x 164 cm. Archivio Alighiero Boetti.

In the Boetti, the biro lines are entirely vertical, in hers they were both horizontal and vertical. Boetti’s ‘Mettare Al Mondo Il Mondo’ series are strong, thought provoking images, a record of the labour involved in making art, hers were not.

The young man behind me continues to draw, I realise that he is drawing people as they walk past, reflecting their vigour in this room (Room 29) of vigorous painted figures. The focus of his drawing is moving round the bench and will get to me soon; time to go.

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